Using Matwork in Behaviour Modification

Originally published in the fall 2019 IAABC Journal.


Sarah Dixon, CDBC

The concept of mat work or place training is nothing new in dog training. However, it remains one of my favorite behaviors to teach because it is very useful for pet owners and extremely versatile in behavior modification work.

This involves teaching a dog to go to a specific item or place and target it with their body. I prefer to work up to a default down; I often begin with a sit and build from there. My preference is to use a flat dog mat or towel, as these are easy to move around the home, transport to different locations, and easy for the dog to get their body onto.

I prefer to teach this behavior through shaping, as doing so eliminates any unnecessary prompts from the onset of training. Shaping this behavior is relatively easy for even a novice handler to accomplish, with skilled coaching. If needed I will sometimes jumpstart the process and have my client take over, but they can do most of the work on their own if they know what to watch for. At first we want the dog to just inspect the mat, then walk on to it, and then sit and later lie down. Often I work on shaping progressively more relaxed body language as well.

By shaping a dog to go to a mat and relax, we can often quickly begin to reduce general anxiety or over-arousal issues. The dog may learn how to self-regulate their behavior through this exercise. The mat can also become a safe place for dogs that lack confidence. These benefits are in addition to the fact that it can simply be useful in many facets of behavior modification to train a dog to go to a specific spot on cue…..(read full article)


Danger at the Door

Originally featured in the Summer 2019 IAABC Journal.

Click link for full article.

Danger at the Door

City life is not easy for all dogs. For the outgoing canine “extrovert” it’s a walk in the park — new friends and adventures around every corner. For the more reserved or fearful dogs, however, it can be a nightmare.

One of the unique challenges for dogs in urban environments is apartment living. Even for a confident dog, tight spaces such as elevators and hallways can be tricky. For a dog that is nervous of people or other animals these confined spaces can mean running a gauntlet multiple times a day. Avoidance isn’t an option in most situations in the city.

One of the most common issues I see as a behavior consultant in Manhattan is dogs that have issue with strangers entering the home. Interestingly, I seldom worked with this behavior problem when I lived in a rural area. There, dogs were expected to bark at strangers, and it seemed that they were more accepting of newcomers to their homes, possibly due to space not being so constrained and not being constantly bombarded by terrifying delivery men at the door. Most of us city-dwellers do not have yards — or even an extra bedroom (studio apartments, anyone?) — to stash our dogs in if needed to avoid a potentially hairy encounte,. Having a fearful or aggressive dog in an apartment building simply amplifies these concerns.

My goals with stranger danger dogs in apartments are to make the dog as calm and comfortable as possible, and for the owner to have a system to safely have guests over and (if appropriate) to introduce the dog to new people. Some dogs, depending on temperament, can be safe and friendly with new people on the first meeting with proper introductions. Some dogs need to be introduced methodically and over several meetings, and some should not be expected to interact with guests — only to build relationships with people who will be a regular part of their life. This can involve various options for environmental management, including crates, baby gates, tether stations, and sometimes muzzles.

See full article…

Forget Everything You’ve Heard About Dominance

If your dog tries to ask nicely for space, and no one listens they may learn to eventually resort to “screaming” for their requests for space to be heard. In dog language screaming for space equals barking, lunging, growling, and sometimes aggression.

These insecure dogs often get labelled as dominant and well-meaning owners are told to alpha roll or pin their dog, which only makes them lose trust in their person even more.

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about dominance – it’s probably false. Your dog is likely needing to feel safe or too excited – or a mix of both.

What are some ways dogs will ‘ask nicely’ for space or show that they are nervous? Some of the most common ones you will see and can start to watch for in your own dogs are:

Lip Licking

Lip licking can be a sign of stress.

Lip licking can be a sign of stress.


Head Turn

Your dog turning it's head away from a person or dog is a signal that they are non-threatening and may be uncomfortable with the interaction.

Your dog turning it’s head away from a person or dog is a signal that they are non-threatening and may be uncomfortable with the interaction.


Pinning Ears

Your dog's ears being pinned flat back can be a good sign that they are nor comfortable. Not that the dog here is also licking it's lips.

Your dog’s ears being pinned flat back can be a good sign that they are nor comfortable. Not that the dog here is also licking it’s lips.



Your dog yawning when they are not tired may be a sign that they are feeling stressed or in conflict.

Your dog yawning when they are not tired may be a sign that they are feeling stressed or in conflict.


Tucking Tail

A dog tucking their tail under their body is a sign that they are fearful or not confident.

A dog tucking their tail under their body is a sign that they are fearful or not confident.

Paw Lift

A dog lifting a paw can be a sign that they are uncomfortable in a social interaction.

A dog lifting a paw can be a sign that they are uncomfortable in a social interaction.


Does this dog look comfortable?


Whale Eye

Eyes can tell you a lot about a dog's emotional state, if you know what you are looking for. Whale is refers to the dog looking sideways so you can often see the white of their eye. It is a sign of discomfort, stress, and can often be a pre-bite warning.

Eyes can tell you a lot about a dog’s emotional state, if you know what you are looking for. Whale is refers to the dog looking sideways so you can often see the white of their eye. It is a sign of discomfort, stress, and can often be a pre-bite warning.


These are just some of the many body language signals your dog will use to communicate stress, conflict, and discomfort. Remember all behaviour is fluid and must be taken in context – emotional states cannot be judged by a still photo. However, this will give you a good idea of what to start looking for in your dog’s body language.

Here are some videos that are a great starting point for reading dog body language signals. You can find a lot more great resources on YouTube as well:

“The Clicker Thing” Really Works!

A few weeks ago I met with a client for a private lesson with her reactive Border Collie, Fred. We’ve been doing lessons for a while now. At that lesson she confessed that for several weeks she had been thinking “this clicker thing” (AKA engage/disengage game) was not going to work at all. She told me that she trusted me and had been giving it a good try even though she wasn’t convinced. She said that once she really put in the time it “totally started to work.”

Last weekend (just over one month since that conversation), I graduated Fred and his mom from their private lessons. I always send out a survey to get feedback from my clients’ regarding their experience of training with me. She wrote a whole bunch of stuff about how much more fun it is to go for a walk with Fred now that he is calmer but here’s the part that made me proud and made me laugh: “Jennifer is spot on with her training. We questioned one or two things along the way thinking that they would not help or work. We followed her instructions to a “T” though, and were proved wrong every time. She knew what she was talking about, and if her instructions are followed exactly, the results are there. It was amazing!”

Now, here’s my confession: I was faking it.

I took Sarah’s seminar last March and started trying the “clicker thing” with a couple of clients as soon as I got home. I’ve been training dogs professionally for about 6 years and have done marker training before but I had never used a clicker to deal with reactivity. I gave this client a clicker and bait bag and told her that we were going to try out this new stuff I had learned. She knew I was experimenting with her and her dog and she was willing to give it a shot. There was no question in my mind that click-for-looking/click-for-looking-away works. I was just crossing my fingers that I could get it to work for Fred and his mom. I’ve been struggling for a long time with how to help clients with reactive dogs. Way too long. This is not the first reactive dog that I’ve graduated since taking Sarah’s seminar but the feedback on this one is immensely satisfying. Thank you Sarah!

– Jennifer Frese – Wenatchee, WA

When Medication May Be The Right Choice

Sarah Fulcher, CDBC

I recently began working with a very lovely little dog named Lily, a female mixed breed dog who weighs about 25 lbs. She is very affectionate, intelligent and cute, however, she had a very rough start in life. Before she came to her new owners she spent most of her crucial developmental periods in isolation. She received little to no socialization and was kept inside a room in a house with another dog who repeatedly aggressed towards her.

Surprisingly, Lily is a very friendly and trusting dog towards humans. She is mostly a pleasant dog to live with. However, I was called in to assist with Lily’s intense reactivity. She is not aggressive towards dogs or people, but she was extremely reactive on lead at the sight or sound of another dog. In fact, just walking out the front door was enough to send her into a barking frenzy, and she was constantly hyper vigilant and explosive while outdoors. Inside, she could be fairly calm but would erupt into seemingly randomly triggered spouts of intense barking and was difficult to redirect or settle.

After doing two sessions with Lily and her owner I recommended that they speak to the veterinarian about behavioural medications for Lily. This is something that I am extremely infrequent to recommend, simply because I think most dogs with behaviour problems do not need it, and most behaviour problems can be tackled through behaviour modification and training. However, there are several reasons why I thought this would be a good choice for Lily:

  1. Her reaction was extremely intense, difficult to interrupt, and she had a very poor recovery from stress.
  2. Her threshold was extremely high, simply being outside was incredibly stressful for her and sent her over the top into over stimulation and frenzy.
  3. Her triggers were multiple and often it was impossible to determine exactly what it was that was setting her off.
  4. The behaviour was severely impacting Lily’s quality of life as well as her owner’s.

Lack of early stimulation can effect brain development, which in turn can influence behaviour.

Sometimes, when dogs do not get enough stimulation in the early parts of their life and through critical development periods they can have problems tolerating stressors as well as a normally functioning dog. This can also occur if the mother is sick or stressed while the puppies are in utero. I thought that the complete isolation Lily lived the beginning of her life in could definitely have caused abnormal brain development, and she simply maybe was having a physiologically different response to stress. This type of thing is out of the realm of a behaviour consultant, so I suggested that Lily’s owners consult with the veterinarian and also told them about the option of doing a phone consult with a Veterinary Behaviourist via their vet since we do not have that specialist option locally. One of the prices we pay to live in the gorgeous mountains.

The last time I saw Lily was just over 7 weeks ago and her owners took her to the vet very shortly after our last appointment. Provided with the behaviour history as well as my assessment and notes, the vet and Lily’s owner decided to try putting Lily on Prozac. We wanted to wait in between sessions to give the medication some time to take effect in Lily’s system, but her owners continued to work on some of the foundation skills we had started on such as go to mat and conditioning her to a head collar.

I just saw Lily today and I was blown away by the positive difference in her. The previous times I would arrive at the home, Lily would erupt into constant, high volume barking. She was difficult for the owners to redirect and gain control of her. She would rush down the stairs, barking the entire time and run up to me barking. She would not settle until I got up the stairs. This session, I knocked on the door and heard her bark lightly 4 times, and then the owner sent her to her mat, came down and answered the door and Lily remained calm. Once released off her mat, Lily barked lightly two more times on her way over to me where she greeted me happily and politely. She settled immediately and enjoyed some affection with me once we were upstairs.

The previous times I visited Lily, multiple times per session she would also begin barking for no apparent reason (there was no visual or auditory stimuli we could detect) and took a while to settle. This session, there was not so much as a peep out of her. She was notably more relaxed and calm, but did not at all seemed sedated and was her normal lovely self.

Not Lily, but similarly cute.

Not Lily, but similarly cute.

Taking Lily outdoors was where I noticed and extreme difference. Previously Lily would explode the moment we crossed the threshold, even when she had been calm second before. She was barking almost constantly, hyper vigilant, couldn’t focus, and pulled constantly at the leash. She would suddenly begin to bark and violently lunge if she so much as heard a dog, and sometimes when we could not hear anything at all.

At this latest session, she walked outside happy, confidently and calmly. She didn’t bark once! Last time we tired to work her outdoors, we barely made it a quarter of the way down their driveway. Today she cheerfully trotted down the entire driveway without a hitch. When I brought my dog out there was an outburst at the initial site of him, but Lily was very quick to redirect and settled shortly. With a bit of work we were then able to walk her calmly up to my dog within a few moments, and she promptly greeted him very politely and appropriately. When I brought out my second dog she was very interested, but did not bark at all. She was able to nicely walk right past him, and then was able to meet him and even tried to play. With my third dog she again did not bark at all, and while interested, was able to ignore her easily.

I was incredibly pleased with the difference in Lily with the addition of behavioural medication to her treatment plan. To be honest the results were better than I could have imagined! Lily is able to be outside without being stressed constantly and is able to go on walks with her owner on a regular basis without it being an unpleasant experience for both of them. I’m happy to say Lily will be joining us in our outdoor group classes next week.

While I do feel that behavioural medications may sometimes not be the best choice, and are certainly not a replacement for training, this was a case where the dog really needed it and this decision will improve the quality of life for Lily and her human family. Sometimes we are dealing with dogs whose poor start in life has actually led them to have abnormal brain development, and in these cases it might be time to consider some extra help beyond behaviour modification and training.

Our outdoor group class which Lily will no be able to join.

Our outdoor group class which Lily will no be able to join.

Some signs that it might be appropriate to consider medication as part of a treatment plan can be: when the behaviour is is provoked by routine occurrences or the triggers are multiple and difficult to predict; if the dogs reaction to provoking stimuli is very intense and disproportionate; if the dog’s recovery to stress is poor meaning that their reaction may last a while or they take a long time to return to baseline.

If you think a dog you are working with (or your personal dog) may benefit from medication, it may be time to consider speaking with your vet or a veterinary behaviourist. Veterinary behaviourists are not geographically available to all of us, but some of them, like (Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland) can offer phone consultants to your client’s veterinarian.

Veterinary behaviourists may also have some insight into important medical tests to run before placing a dog on medication, as they did with our corgi Kalani. It was recommended we test for proper liver functioning in her due to her symptoms and it turned out she has some form of liver disease like a shunt. Lani has been placed on a prescription diet and her behaviour problems are improving. My general vet is not a specialist in the health links to behaviour problems and didn’t pick up the behavioural symptoms of liver disease.

Behavioural medications should not be viewed as a quick fix – they are best used in conjunction with a training and behaviour modification program with a qualified professional. Sometimes it may be necessary for the dog to remain on them their entire life, but other times it can be a short term solution to help behaviour training take hold. I look forward to working more with Lily and her family, and am excited for what the future holds for them. I am thrilled that the medication has already helped Lily as much as it has, and I see a bright prognosis for her with her owners being dedicated to continuing training with her.